Monday, October 08, 2007

Terry Jones on our Maligned Middle Ages

News for Medievalists has an interview with Terry Jones, most famous for his work on Monty Python. What non-medieval scholars might not know is that Terry Jones is a legitimate scholar of medieval history, not just a celebrity popularizer. Nearly every literary scholar I know who has read Jones's Chaucer's Knight says exactly the same thing about it: "Very, very good. Totally wrong, of course, but still quite good." I recommend it as a history book, but I would suggest taking its literary thesis (that the Knight of Chaucer is meant to be read ironically) with a hefty grain of sea salt.

By the way, Amazon lists Chaucer's Knight at $118.34! Um, it's not that good. Get it directly from the publisher for 12.99 pounds (about $26 US).

In either case, the interview is very good also. Give both a read.


  1. I was first teaching just as Terry Jones got a series of programmes on the BBC together about life in the Middle Ages, and they became my bane. I wasn't watching them, not being a TV person really, but most of my students were and they'd come in and expect me to have an opinion on his accuracy. Such bits as I did see were very well done, but they did suffer from a besetting problem of Jones's work, his animus against medieval Christianity. So you get Chaucer's Knight, corrupt mercenary rather than pious Crusader; you get all monasteries as grasping accumulators of wealth but with no mention of their handouts to the poor or rôle in keeping people slightly calmer about it all going to Hell in a handbasket; and you get Muslims who are all enlightened patrons of the arts and generally citizens of the modern world. I could cope with both sides being bloody and corrupt, though I'd argue, but I found the my-enemy's-enemy-is-my-friend attitude really galling.

    That said, firstly the reason it was so annoying was because he does know what he's talking about and talks and dramatises it well, so people are easily convinced, especially since he already sounds critical so people assume he's arguing against the orthodoxy with the sword of real life and so on. And secondly, the people who had the course after me had to deal with The Da Vinci Code, while I was safe off finishing my thesis, so I could have had it a lot worse...

    I've read the interview, however, and I feel decidedly warmer towards him for such a show of sense-talking and interested commentary, so perhaps I should forgive his tendency to bend towards good television away from 'perfect' history...

  2. He's a smart, funny man with an agenda that unfortunately has little to do with understanding the Middle Ages and everything to do with manufacturing Morals for Our Time.